Four restaurateurs talk about Tex-Mex, chile con queso, chips, and heartburn.
David Cortez, Mi Tierra, San Antonio
I grew up in the business. My father opened the restaurant in 1941; it was called Jamaica then. I started working there when I was ten years old. My father came from Guadalajara, and he had an aunt from there. She was a good cook, and she helped him. She would tell him what to do.
I would say people started using the term Tex-Mex in the late sixties, when we started getting a lot of tourists in the city. Tex-Mex is crisp tacos, cheddar cheese, and puffy tacos. If you eat tamales with cheddar cheese on top, it is more Tex-Mex. If you eat them with a tomato salsa, it is more Mexican. If you grill them, that is even more Mexican.
In the old days we did not serve chips on the table. That was part of the Tex-Mex ambience, and we had to adjust. People would come in and ask for it. When a lot of people ask for something, you try to accommodate them. We held out as long as we could, until the late seventies.
Hope Garcia Lancarte, Joe T. Garcia’s, Fort Worth
The recipes that we use here came from our mother, Jessie Garcia. She was born in Yurecuaro, Michoacán, in 1905. Her family came to Fort Worth. My father was Joe T. He was born in La Piedad, Michoacán, but my parents didn’t meet until they were both in the U.S.
My parents opened the restaurant around 1935. There wasn’t that much on the menu in early days, just barbecue and a Mexican family-style dinner. Joe’s barbecue wasn’t smoked; it was cooked over charcoal in a pit, which is still there.
A lot of restaurants would put chili over everything, but we did not do that. We still don’t. That is not Mexican food. I would say that is Tex-Mex.
I am not insulted by the term Tex-Mex, but I don’t like it. That is like chili out of a can. Our chiles rellenos and flautas are like we make them in Mexico.
Matt Martinez, Jr., Matt’s El Rancho, Austin
We were the only ones who drained our taco meat after we cooked it. A lot of the heartburn from Mexican food is from the fat. Our customers tell us they don’t get heartburn from our food. We use a little fat for flavor.
Hot sauce was made famous here. The basic enchilada, taco, rice, beans, and chile relleno—we put it on the map. Back in the old days the big sell item was tostadas compuestas with guacamole. Tex-Mex is the fastest growing ethnic food in the world.
Raul Molina, Jr., former owner of Molina’s, Houston
My dad was from Laredo and so was Mr. Santos Gonzalez—he was the chef. He was with my dad for more than fifty years.
We made our own tortillas in the early days. We had a little machine. At that time, this is going back to the forties during the war, tortilla factories were hard to come by. We found a tortilla company in San Antonio, and we would have tortillas shipped in every morning. That was until Panchos Tortillas opened up in the fifties or early sixties; then they started supplying them to us.
Actually, we made our own kind of chile con queso. Different things evolved—for instance, nachos. I had a bright idea to make the nacho with a round chip, and we asked Pancho’s to make them round for us. The nachos were known as the tortilla chip with melted cheese and jalapeños. We added the beans, taco meat, and sour cream—oh boy, dress it up and sell another item. It is all about taking care of your customers.
Most of the recipes were for dishes like the chile gravy, the chile con carne, which was very popular, and the taco meat, the chile con queso, and the Spanish sauce. To this day we still use all of them. At home we ate differently. We ate carne guisada, caldos, and sopas, which we didn’t serve at the restaurant.